A week offline in the African bush

In 1926, Boyd's grandfather bought a bankrupt cattle farm, which later became a hunting camp. Boyd's father and uncle, assisted by a local naturalist, started regenerating the land with the vision of creating one of Africa’s first safari experiences, turning it into the beautiful, lush wilderness full of wildlife that it is today.

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Maputo, still trying to integrate all the learnings and insights I’ve gained from a week offline, deep in the South African wilderness at Londolozi Game Reserve. I joined a retreat for men called Track Your Life, something I knew I had to do right after finishing the book “The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life” by Boyd Varty, the host and creator of the retreat experience. He was joined by his sister Bronwyn, who co-hosted the coaching sessions, and the two most senior trackers on the Londolozi team, Alex and Renias, who are also protagonists of the book and guided the wilderness tracking experience.

Renias is one of the last remaining holders of ancient knowledge of the Shangaan people, who live in the region between Kruger Park and Mozambique. He is a master in the art of animal tracking and has trained Alex, then Boyd, and together with Alex they have passed the knowledge down to hundreds of young trackers who go through their Tracker Academy. These young trackers later can find quality job opportunities as safari rangers in the tourist industry or join anti-poacher units doing the crucial work of preventing rhinos from going extinct.

I joined a group of six men from far corners of the world, all trying to find their own tracks and purpose in life. The work that Boyd does with his team, beautifully explained in his book, creates a parallel between the art of reading nature and tracking wild animals, and tracking your own life by learning to read the signs around you and tapping into your intuition. The work is supported by the land that is now Londolozi Reserve. Back in 1926, when Boyd’s grandfather acquired the land, it was a bankrupt cattle farm, which later became a hunting camp. Eventually, Boyd’s father and uncle, assisted by a local naturalist, started regenerating the land with the vision of creating one of Africa’s first safari experiences, turning it into the beautiful, lush wilderness full of wildlife that it is today.

I landed in South Africa overwhelmed by an intense week in Sao Paulo filled with strategy meetings, difficult conversations, and negotiations. A couple of days later, I found myself immersed in the wilderness, away from any digital distractions, attempting to shut down all my social conditioning and tap into my own inner wild self. The inner journey is not new to me. It all started 15 years ago with a transcendental meditation course and persistent practice that led me into a rabbit hole of spirituality and inner work. I’ve gone from Kung Fu training in Thailand to a silent pilgrimage in Japan, deep journeys with plant medicine, and earning a degree as a forest therapy guide. All this soul-searching led me to live close to my dream life, finding my deep purpose at work, but still holding on to that nagging feeling that something is missing, always looking for the next big thing in my life.

The retreat started with a silent game drive. No phones or cameras were allowed. No ranger giving long explanations about all the species of antelopes, who hunts whom, or the sex of the leopards. It was just you, the sounds of nature, and the awe that comes with each incredible silent encounter. The deep look in the eyes of a giraffe, the slow movement of a large herd of elephants, the dance of a multitude of antelopes, and the song of hundreds of birds. We could even hear the lions calling from far away. Or maybe it was the hyenas. Boyd told us to enjoy the presence of the experience and trust that the land would start working on us.

The next day, we went off on our first track, following the footsteps of two male lions. The track started revealing itself more and more as we learned what to look for. We walked for a couple of hours in the bush, trying our best to stay in the moment and getting a glimpse of the art of tracking by watching the three master trackers in action. Eventually, it was clear that the lions had gone to another property, crossing the boundary of our search. We left the track and jumped in the vehicle heading back to base when a giant male elephant blocked our way and sent us back to find an alternative road. Forced to drive back where we came from, our lion crossed in front of the vehicle. That elephant had blocked our track and sent us back right at the exact moment the lion was crossing our way. Call it serendipity, the universe giving us what we were looking for, or another repetitive life lesson I have seen before about letting go of the outcome, enjoying the process, and dealing with a roadblock, only to find what you were looking for in the most unexpected turn.

As the land started doing its work on me, I felt heavy and exhausted. It was almost as if driving last month non-stop in fifth gear had finally come back to haunt me. From my cabin, I could see a hippo in the river, completely still and calm, so still that a turtle decided to sunbathe on top of him. Such a powerful creature, so calm and still, saving his energy for the night when he will walk long miles eating loads of grass. I felt like that hippo, but I was down doing my hippo game in a warm jacuzzi in one of the most comfortable safari lodges you can find. Maybe social conditioning and all the comforts of my civilized life had made me so soft and weak that a day in the wilderness was enough to knock me out, or maybe it was dengue fever, now an epidemic in Sao Paulo. There goes my mental chattering again. What is it with this neurotic human mind that goes on and on all day? I doubt that the hippo is thinking about what he should have done the night before when he was out working in the bush before he went into his floating all-day hippo routine.

Our next track was a rhino track. Less about reading footprints on the sand and more about reading the patterns on the grass made by these massive animals. Our senior trackers can read even deeper: the smell of rhino piss, the broken branches. The trail should be easy enough that we six rookies would rotate in the lead, but like all tracks in life, this one was also very different than we initially predicted. That male lonely rhino was his unique wild self and not ready to follow expected patterns that day. He was supposed to have walked straight, marking the edges of his territory with his scent, but he didn’t. He went back and forth for some unknown reason, tasting the grass at his own pace and will, to the point we were going up and down the trail until we completely lost it. Losing the trail is one of the most beautiful metaphors of the process. You know what you are looking for, but it’s nowhere to be found to the point you start questioning everything. Why are we on this trail to start with? What the hell are we doing chasing this rhino in the bush under the sun? Maybe we should just give up and go look for lions again. We stayed in the process, held the discomfort of the confusion, tapped into the unease, and eventually found the rhino tracks again. As we moved closer, the birds were the first to sound the alarm. As in everything in nature, symbiosis is always at play. The idea that one is alone in this world is as foolish as the non-stop mind chattering about nothing and everything. If you look close enough and invite your intuition in, you will find there are plenty of allies out there helping you find your track. I have my beautiful girlfriend as one of my key tracking partners right now, my team back at home helping me track the role of our organization, and even the people I dislike in this world reflect back something in me I’m trying to hide and point me on the right track.

Back to our rhino, at this point he has heard his bird friends’ alarm. His ears are up and his nose pointing towards us, trying to smell what we are up to. Renias explains that if this were a black rhino, he would likely charge towards us if he felt threatened, but this is a white rhino, and his nature is more docile. His wild self would run in the opposite direction if he felt a sign of danger. He eventually relaxes; we watch him from a distance as he goes back to working the land. If it weren’t for him, the elephants, the buffaloes, and all the grazing wild animals in this area, the grass would grow untamed and eventually dry out, becoming powder in the dry season to feed wildfires. All things in the web of life rely on this rhino. He knows his path but walks it with a light heart. There is no sense of superiority. He is not asking to be called the COO of the wild. He is just working the grass and allowing the birds to work the ticks off his back.

That night, we had a special surprise waiting for us. No luxury lodge with white fluffy pillows for us that night. We camped out in the wilderness, lit a fire, ate impala stew, and rotated on watch to keep the wild animals away as the rest of the group slept. I’m still feeling heavy. I can’t really recognize myself. The energetic, enthusiastic, extrovert, super achiever weight lifter is no longer there. I ask myself if I have enough energy to stay out on the watch for one and a half hours in the middle of the night. At the same time, the mind is quiet, there is no fear of the wild. I’m grateful to be there. On my shift, I secretly hoped a magical antelope would show up to give me a personal message from the wild, but nature had other plans. A wild animal my flashlight could not capture invaded our camp during my watch and went straight for the most senior guides. They both woke up suddenly with ants crawling over their sleeping bags and into their clothes. It turns out the temperature was slightly higher than the usual winter camp night, making the ants especially active that night. Quite ironic to see that decades of wildlife tracking still make you vulnerable to the tiniest of creatures.

That damn lesson of control again. No Ayahuasca needed this time. No major spiritual revelation at a sacred Shinto shrine. It was ants crawling all over the camp during my watch. The hyenas were busy somewhere else, as were the lions and the antelopes.

The next morning felt like a miracle. I can’t say I slept great, with my midnight watch in between sleeps, but something had worked in me. I woke up full of energy. No mental chatter. Lots of clarity and ready to track again. As Boyd beautifully summarizes in his book: I don’t know where I’m going, but I know exactly how to get there. I will find my track again, lose it, find it again, and discover later that it was not the track I thought I was looking for. I will keep on tracking as long as my body and mind allow me. I will enjoy the track and accept the gifts that are present on my way. I will do it with the help of my own unique wild self that wants to be what he wants to be. Not forcing a path that is not naturally mine to walk. Not trying to be a lion on a hunt all the time because even the lions spend close to 20 hours of their day just lying on the grass. The elephant does choose to work for 20 hours a day, but he does it on his own terms, at a slow and steady pace with lots of stillness in between. On this work of impact and regeneration that many of you reading this are also involved, we tend to be caught up in our external impact stories. Millions of hectares regenerated, thousands of tons of carbon sequestration. What we often miss completely is the regeneration of ourselves. I hope you find your own path of regeneration.

For more guidance, read the book The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life by Boyd Varty.

To support the wonderful work of the Tracker Academy, click on the link below and reach out to Alex and Renias

https://www.trackeracademy.co.za/

To enjoy and learn more about the beautiful story of the regeneration of Londolozi, book your stay or retreat.

https://www.londolozi.com/